I pulled an envelope from my campus mailbox and checked the return address. A letter from home. My stomach twisted as I noticed the handwriting. It was a childish and shaky scrawl I recognized as my mother’s left-handed scribble. Years of experience told me what this meant. She was right-handed but sometimes wrote with her left when she was delusional.
I tucked the letter into my jacket and smiled my way through a throng of college friends checking their own mailboxes. Letters from home, I thought. I left the building and headed to my dorm, wondering what I would find in that envelope.
In the privacy of my room, I pulled the letter from my jacket and opened it to find two folded papers. I opened one at a time: A strange, childish drawing in crayon. And a page neatly colored by my mother and carefully torn from a children’s coloring book. My letter from home.
Something in me wept. But I had suppressed emotions for a long time, and I had lost the ability to actually cry.
I didn’t yet know that Mom had schizophrenia. I just knew something had gone wrong with her mind years before. I was angry, deeply sad, and powerfully ashamed. So I hid that letter, packed it away like the pain I kept hidden from myself and from everyone I was certain would reject me if they knew.
I tried to hide from faith-threatening questions, but they persisted: Why did this happen to my family? My parents were faithful, dedicated to serving Christ with their whole lives. What kind of God rewards his followers with paranoid delusions and psychotic breaks?
The same stigma that kept me silent kept others silent too. For a long time, because I had never heard honest discussion of mental illness in the church, I thought the church had nothing to say about it. And because the church was silent, I wasn’t sure God had anything to say either. I just knew my family’s experience didn’t fit the prevailing picture of the faithful Christian life: You repent and accept God’s grace. You engage in spiritual discipline to welcome the Holy Spirit’s transformative work. You grow in knowledge, faith, and joy. You’re not supposed to be derailed by debilitating emotions, faulty thinking, or paranoid delusions. If you suffer, you’re supposed to find meaning in it, experience God’s healing, and move on. But there is no moving on from the persistent anguish of repeatedly losing yourself or someone you love.
So I walled off my confusion and grief. I navigated school, sports, music, youth group, and an active social life. I tried to be normal. I went to college 500 miles away and tried to avoid my grief. I asked God to heal my mom, and when I was with her I tried to heal her myself.
Over time, God gradually turned my attention toward my open wound I was pretending not to see. He gave me courage to engage my family in a new way–to challenge the conspiracy of self-protection we had built. He helped me understand that this kind of pain doesn’t stop hurting but can be made beautiful through the power of his own suffering and his remarkably redemptive love.
God helped me reject the script I had memorized and thought I was supposed to recite–the one suggesting the Christian life should be free of psychological pain. I began to embrace biblical truth about suffering: “Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows” (John 16:33). “While we live in these earthly bodies, we groan and sigh” (2 Corinthians 5:4). God’s “power works best in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Wounded is the way God wants me. My efforts to wall off my pain had closed parts of myself he wanted to use. So he called me to tell my family’s story and challenge the church. As I’ve opened up, others have shared with me. Turns out, nearly everyone I know is somehow touched by mental illness–which directly afflicts 25 percent of the U.S. population. I had thought my family was alone, but like others, we were only isolated by shame.
So, why my family?
All creation groans under sin’s curse (Romans 8:22-28). Someday life will be everything we wish it were now, with new joys we don’t have the capacity to wish for. But for now we’re stuck in a place so dramatically twisted by our own choices, we can’t see straight. If the curse on this world didn’t hurt, we wouldn’t find hope in a sinless future, when our “dying bodies will be swallowed up by life” (2 Corinthians 5:4).
I hope churches will stop implying through silence that our faith is not big enough, our God not powerful enough, to embrace people in psychological pain. I hope the church will learn to openly discuss mental illness and its questions. Messy faith? You bet. But God is not intimidated by our tough questions–he himself is the answer.
We have great hope–in his grace God plants beauty in the soil of sorrow. Like letters from home, these acts of redemption lift the curtain for a glimpse at what’s coming. “For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever” (2 Corinthians 4:17).
This article was previously published in the May/June 2013 issue of PRISM Magazine, a publication of Evangelicals for Social Action.
© 2013 Amy Simpson.